Surely Taraji P. Henson deserves better than the routine gangland shoot-’em-up that is “Proud Mary.” Surely we do, too. Having broken through 12 years ago with “Hustle & Flow,” laid claim to TV legend as Cookie in “Empire,” and anchored the box-office hit “Hidden Figures,” Henson has more than earned the right to play a pistol-packing action queen and the toughest hit-lady on Boston’s mean streets. But would it kill anybody to have made a decent movie in the bargain?
Instead, we get a by-the-numbers B flick with a preposterous script and a good cast trying their best. We first see Mary (Henson) on an assigned hit where she kills her quarry but guiltily leaves his 11-year-old son alive. Cut to a year later, and the orphaned boy, Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), is a drug mule for one of our fair city’s two organized criminal organizations. Mary works for the other, run by deceptively kindly Benny (Danny Glover), whose ambitious son, Tom (Billy Brown), is Mary’s former boyfriend and fellow assassin.
The plot gets rolling, rolling, when Mary takes the boy under her wing and accidentally starts a gang war, pitting Benny’s criminal empire against the Russians run by Luka (Rade Serbedzija). Bloody gunbattles are punctuated by maternal melodrama as Danny is coaxed into letting down his guard. What will he do when he finds out the nice lady with the armory hidden in her walk-in closet is the person who killed his father?
The film is well cast; the young Winston especially impresses and manages to sell the audience on an impossible part. Henson is badass and bighearted as necessary; Brown (Nate on “How to Get Away With Murder”) smolders nicely. Where the movie falls and can’t get up is in the dialogue, the camerawork, and the editing. All one really asks of an action movie is that the action be well-staged and comprehensible, but the crew working under director Babak Najafi can’t even get that right.
It’ll boil water if there’s absolutely nothing else to stream on a lazy night, and, for frostbitten New England moviegoers, “Proud Mary” does offer the pleasure of a geographically addled cook’s tour of the Hub in April of last year. There’s a pretty drone shot above Comm. Ave., a Public Garden walk-through, and repeated shots of Mary’s apartment building at 63 Melcher St. in Fort Point. And who knew the Russian mob holed up in the Stonehurst mansion out in Waltham? But the characters fighting over drug territory in the West End doesn’t really wash — if they dealt there, they’d be home now — and only in the movies can you take the Orange Line to Lowell, as Danny does in one scene.
Points for showcasing Tina Turner’s rendition of the title cut in the spirited (but still clumsy) climactic bloodbath, and when Henson’s Mary declares she’s the mothering type just before popping a bad guy in the head, you get a sense of how much good-bad fun this could have been. Otherwise, “Proud Mary” doesn’t do it nice and easy or nice and rough. It just gets it over with.
Directed by Babak Najafi. Written by Steve Antin, John Stuart Newman, and Christian Swegal. Starring Taraji P. Henson, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Billy Brown, Danny Glover. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 89 minutes. R (violence).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.